December 17, 2017
There are some churches of Appalachia, mostly north of us in Kentucky and West Virginia, that are called snake-handling churches. Primarily of the Pentecostal persuasion, the pastor and others handle venomous snakes – typically rattlesnakes – as a form of worship and faith during their services. Here’s a couple pictures – some of many I could show you – that depict the practice. Three years ago, ABC News produced a headline story when a famous, snake-handling pastor died of a rattlesnake bite. There have been many such deaths.
Well, I have a confession to make. A year and a half ago, I was with Operation Christmas Child in Guyana – with Randy Riddle, Carey Gregory, Hannah Bolvi, and others. Shortly after a distribution at an elementary school, we were on a bus on the way back to the hotel. There, on the side of the road in front of another elementary school, was gathered a large crowd. We saw two men holding a fourteen foot anaconda between them which they had caught directly across the street.
Not wanting to miss an evangelistic opportunity, we stopped the bus, and yours truly handled the aforementioned anaconda. That’s right – this is not photo-shopped. I’m not sure you can see the demonic nature of the snake, so let me enlarge that for you. I know you are impressed – and well you should be. While not venomous, anacondas are the largest snakes in the world, squeezing the life from their prey, and swallowing them whole. My life was in grave danger…it was an act of masculine faith and leadership. (Hannah picture) Wait – that picture was not supposed to be there. Whatever. I have waited for a year and a half to show you those pictures.
But, where do those who participate in snake handling biblically get the practice? I suppose you could go to Acts 28. There, Paul was on his way, under arrest, to Rome to give a defense of his faith to Caesar. After a shipwreck, he and all those onboard make it safely to the island of Malta. There, because of the rain and cold, they decided to build a fire. We read these words in verses 3-5:
3 But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand.
4 When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, “Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”
5 However he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm.
So I guess the practice could come from there. However, please notice this was not an intentional snake-handling event. Further, Paul was bitten, and the snake died at the end of the story. Quite different from what we see in snake-handling churches. The handlers are the ones dying.
Well, perhaps it comes from Mark 16:17-18, which read, [Jesus speaking] “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them…” Wow – you didn’t know that was in there, did you? So, under every chair this morning is either a rattlesnake or a bottle of deadly poison….
We have a significant challenge before us today. We arrive at the last sermon in the Gospel of Mark. Well, actually, that was last Sunday. You say, whatever do you mean – I have several verses left in my Bible in Mark 16. That’s what I want to talk to you about briefly today – and I do mean briefly – Merry Christmas.
If you’ve been at Alliance Bible Fellowship long, you know we focus on the Bible. You’ve heard me say it this way: My great passion for us as a church is to be Christ-exalting, Gospel-centered and Word-saturated. If you’re looking for a church with some gimmick to produce church growth so we can be a big church, right here in Boone, this is not it. I don’t have gimmicks – we simply have our great Christ, His great Gospel, and His great Word, which communicates His great plan of humanity’s salvation for our great joy and His great glory. These are not just Christian words to us – this is who we are.
So, we study books of the Bible here. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with studying topics which are biblically based. But we choose to study through books of God’s eternal Word. And we don’t skip anything. The difficult passages, the familiar passages, the easy passages, the confusing passages – we just take them as they come.
You see, when I talk about the importance of the Bible – there are two doctrines I want you to remember. One is called inspiration. We get it from 2 Timothy 3, among other places, which says all of God’s word – every word – is inspired or breathed out by God. That means, without eliminating the personalities of the authors, or culture, or history, or grammar – every word is exactly what He wants it to be. Which means the Bible is fully trustworthy – it is all God’s Word. Remember, it doesn’t contain God’s word, as if some is from God and some is from man – it is all God’s word.
The second doctrine is called preservation. Simply said, preservation means if God was going to go to the trouble to inspire His Word, He would also preserve it, such that what we have in our Bibles is God’s trustworthy, faithful Word – even 2000 years after the last book was written. And from that, you can have full confidence that your Bible is God’s Word. I believe that – and I don’t want to do anything to destroy your complete, rightfully-placed confidence.
But, you do understand two other facts about the Bible and its transmission – that is, passing the Bible on to succeeding generations. First, you should know we do not have the autographa, that is, we do not have the original autographs, like the original manuscript that Mark wrote or the original letters that Paul wrote. Rather, we have copies of copies of copies. So, for example, we will say that the Bible as originally written, is inspired and inerrant. Now, under the doctrine of preservation, what we have has been supernaturally preserved. Such that, for example, there is amazing agreement between the 5000 Greek manuscripts that we have of the NT – whether those manuscripts are small fragments or entire books. The massive agreement is, again, supernatural, such that there is over 99% agreement, and no major doctrine is affected in that less than 1% difference.
Which leads to the second fact to know about transmission. Careful copies were made through the centuries. But, minor copyist mistakes were made – which account for that less than 1% challenge of textual difference. Sometimes those mistakes were intentional. What do I mean? Sometimes, people who were copying thought something might be better written, or a word or even an entire verse or story was left out. And they would add it. All that brings us to the 16th chapter of the book of Mark. One author, addressing this issue, writes:
“In general, these copies show remarkable agreement among themselves. The most notorious exception to this otherwise happy rule, however, is the ending of Mark, which presents the gravest textual problem in the New Testament.” (Edwards – Pillar)
Last week, we studied the resurrection in verses 1-8. And I suggested that was actually the end of Mark. But, you quickly and rightly observe, there are lots of verses after Mark 16:8 – namely, verses 9-20. What about them? Great question. You should know the following:
First, the earliest Greek manuscripts of Mark 16 do not have verses 9-20. It ends at verse 8.
Second, the earliest church fathers, who wrote commentaries on the NT, do not comment on verses 9-20 – since they weren’t there.
Third, verses 9-20 don’t fit. For example, the transition from verse 8 to 9 is both thematically and grammatically awkward. The subject in verse 8 is the women, then in verse 9, it switches to Jesus, rather awkwardly. Further, Mary Magdalene is introduced as if she’s a new character in the story – and yet she’s already been mentioned recently three before. Further, the writing doesn’t sound at all like Mark – there are 18 words in these few verses that do not appear in the rest of his gospel.
Given the evidence – both external and internal – almost every evangelical scholar today agrees Mark 16:9-20 was not original. Which begs some other questions. First, who added it? We don’t know – it appears in second century manuscripts. Why was it added? We can only guess, but many suggest it was added because the book ends rather abruptly, with the women in fear, and no resurrection appearances of Jesus. So, they say, someone thought it would be good to add an ending to bring the story to a better close, like the other three gospels. We’ll come back to that.
Next question, you should know that there were actually two endings added after verse 8, the so-called shorter ending, which reads, “And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” No one accepts that as the ending of Mark’s gospel – it frankly has some weird words which don’t sound like Mark at all, and appears in very few later manuscripts. Someone added it, and it got copied a very few times.
But, there is also the longer ending which likely appears in your Bibles – verses 9-20. We’ve been talking about it, why don’t we read it – Mark 16:9-20.
Again, for the reasons I gave earlier, most agree this wasn’t part of Mark’s gospel either – he didn’t write these words. We’ll come back to the longer ending in a moment, but this begs another very important, hotly debated question: did Mark end his gospel at verse 8, so abruptly without any resurrection appearances of Jesus, with the women trembling in fear, or was the original ending lost? Now listen, there are godly, conservative evangelical scholars on both sides of the debate. My commentaries don’t agree. Some strongly suggest, nope, Mark ends at verse 8 and gives all the reasons. Some say, nope, it doesn’t end at verse 8, and either Mark wrote more that we lost, or he intended to write more, but didn’t – he either died, or was martyred or got sick or whatever – and then they give all the reasons.
I have an opinion – I know that shocks you – but given the doctrine of preservation – it gives me a little heartburn to think that we lost some of God’s Word. I personally think Mark ends at verse 8. If you believe differently – even if you think verses 9-20 belong there, that’s fine. But, with all that said, what do we do with Mark 16:9-20. Let me offer some thoughts:
First, we have at the very least an early Christian writing on the gospel. By the time these verses were added, these stories were widely circulated and accepted. There was a resurrection – there were lots of appearances – and lots of proof.
Second, we can use these verses in our discussions, but we must know they are without inspired, biblical authority.
Which leads to the third thought – since it’s not inspired, it’s also not necessarily without error. Enter, snake-handling and poison-drinking. We’re going to go through the text briefly to see where these stories are found in the other gospels or Acts – but, snake-handling and poison-drinking are not there. Which brings us to the text. Look at it briefly – I’ll even outline it for you:
- The Appearance to Mary Magdalene (9-11)
- The Appearance to the Two to Emmaus (12-13)
- The Appearance to the Eleven (14)
- The Great Commission (15-16)
- The Accompanying Signs (17-18)
- The Ascension of Jesus (19)
- The Preaching of the Gospel (20)
Seven points – exciting. Don’t worry – all I want you to see is how most of this is found elsewhere. So, beginning with, the appearance to Mary Magdalene. The other three gospels mention this. Luke tells us, indeed she is the one from whom Jesus drove seven demons. She followed Him faithfully – present at the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. She saw Him first. And she did tell the disciples.
Second the appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. This is found in Luke 24. It’s interesting, this author reminds us Jesus appeared in a different form – because when Luke records the story, these two didn’t recognize Jesus – not until later at a meal, when He broke bread with them. By the way, notice, both Mary and these two reported to the eleven, who did not believe them.
So, Jesus appears next to the eleven. We see this in the other gospels and Acts. He actually appeared to them in Jerusalem, in the upper room, then later in Galilee as Mark mentions in verse 7. He reproached them for their unbelief and the hardness of their hearts in that unbelief. After all, He’d told them three times – Mark 8, 9, and 10 – that He would be killed, but raised from the dead. Why didn’t you believe it?
Then, He gives them the Great Commission in verses 15 and 16 – see, we’re already at point 4. It’s a great summation of Matthew 28, but also has some thoughts added from John and Acts. Go preach the gospel to all creation. In Matthew, He said, go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them. Here, this author says the ones who believe and are baptized will be saved. That makes it sound like baptism is necessary for salvation – which actually comes from Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. When he had preached the gospel, they asked him, what must we do? Peter responded, repent and be baptized for the remission of sin. So, is baptism necessary for salvation? No. But it is the capstone if you will. It is an outward expression of the inward reality of saving faith. And so baptism may not be necessary for salvation, but it is an act of obedience.
By the way, notice the end of verse 16 – the ones who disbelieve will be condemned. That’s not in Matthew’s account of the Great Commission, but it is found earlier in John’s Gospel – not at after the resurrection, but much earlier in John 3.
From there, Jesus gives the accompanying signs of those who go preach the gospel – and this is quite unique to Mark from the other gospels, but the truths are largely found in the book of Acts. For example, Jesus says they will cast out demons, and the disciples did that in Acts. They will speak with new tongues – they did that throughout Acts, and Paul even talked about it in his first letter to the Corinthians. They will lay hands on people and heal them – again, throughout the book of Acts
But then comes those two spurious references to snake-handling and poison-drinking. The only snake story is found in Acts 28 that we looked at earlier. There is the return of the seventy after Jesus sent them out in Luke 10. When they returned, they were excited that even demons were subject to them. But Jesus says, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. [I suppose that could refer to drinking poison.] Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”
Again, trampling on snakes and scorpions is illustrative of Christ’s presence and protection, but not initiating the practice of snake-handling. And there is no reference to drinking deadly poison in the NT. But, we do remember from Matthew 28, Jesus said He would be with us to the end of the age – perhaps this was this author’s idea of Christ’s presence and protection.
Verse 19 references Jesus’ ascension. Matthew and John don’t record the ascension – Luke and Acts – both written by Luke – do so in Luke 24 and Acts 1. Of course, Paul references Jesus’ ascension to sit at the Father’s right hand in many places.
Finally, verse 20 speaks of the obedience of the early disciples to preach the gospel everywhere, accompanied by the presence of Christ and confirming signs. Again, we see this throughout the book of Acts.
So what do we do with this? Well first, if I’m right, and I think I am, I’ve just preached an entire sermon without a text. Second, we can be encouraged that early on, there was an understanding in the early church, that the resurrection of Jesus and the spread of the Gospel were true. And finally, we can have complete confidence in the faithful, inspired, preserved Word of God. There may be some textual challenges – but no doctrine affected. God not only inspired His Word, He preserved it. That’s why we study it.